Against the schoolmasters.

To celebrate the inauguration of one year’s worth of academic study, I’ve decided to poke myself in my eye for scientific curiosity, via metaphor and pain. I’ve heard one or two subtle minds explain the difference between learning and understanding, though of course these are loaded terms decided and agreed upon in a million different ways. But there’s a fair point about academics, illustrated by my cheerful experience and by this likely bollocks tale from Plato about Thales, one of the first philosophers in the ontological Greek sense.

“The story about Thales is a good illustration, Theodorus [illustrating the detachment of the philosopher from the humdrum reality of the world]: how he was looking upwards in the course of his astronomical investigations, and fell into a pothole, and a Thracian serving-girl with a nice sense of humour teased him, for being concerned with knowing about what was up in the sky and not noticing what was right in front of him at his feet” – Plato Theaetetus 174a4-8, trans. Duke.

To be fair, the Pre-Socratics as we know them, the first Greek philosophers, are a resource we philosophers – and I mean by ‘philosopher’ anybody who has ever reflected on their own life, the lives of others, death, love, why we are here – in short children and adults who failed to mature properly, sometimes disguised as ‘scientists’ – should return to. Very briefly now, Anaximander’s ‘Apeiron’, the boundless; Heraclitus’ ‘Logos’, the word; Pythagoras’ ‘tetraktys’ which begs comparison to DNA, especially given the context of the search for natural explanations of the world independent of myth these chaps were going for. How about the Pythagorean idea of the ‘soul’ as like a musical instrument, a certain type of harmony to be found resulting in happiness, eh? Analyse and compare to Dale Carnegie’s 1937 ‘How to Make Friends and Influence People’, yeah? Well, I’d argue its a more culturally apt tome to study and decipher for understanding Fordism and 20th century life than Joyce or Lawrence. Who has actually critically studied Dale Carnegie? There you go. Honestly, let’s put a halt on missives on Speculative Realism or the ethics of contemporary fiction until someone has at least critically discussed, acknowledged at least, and worthily analysed Paul McKenna or Dale Carnegie. Even psycho-analysed. It counts.

Lastly, I would say check out Ravisius Textor’s Officina, a summary of the world’s knowlege perhaps, or a collection of curious facts at best. I would write an Officina for our times. What do we know – what do you know? – que scay-je? As worthy as Marco Polo.

Enough. The best philosophers never wrote a thing, or had what offerings might have come destroyed by the priests and schoolmasters – Socrates, Arcesilaus, Lacydes – all died from drinking too….

Anyway, here’s something from Nietzsche, the old schoolmaster himself, and one very proud of his good-willed warlike nature in the classroom – he boasts he could turn around any class in Ecce Homo, an autobiography/legacy-maker that makes what the rest of the publishing industry depends on for Christmas revenues look like toilet-roll. If you ever find yourself in an awkward corner at a party where the group are talking about authors few (including them) have read, consider barking out these frothy, venomous but admirably well-burnt sentiments. Nietzsche apparently only read Frenchmen….

“Scholars who spend basically all their time ‘poring over’ books – a modest estimate for a philologist would be 200 a day – ultimately become completely unable to think for themselves. When they are not poring over books, they are not thinking. When they think, they are responding to some stimulus (- a thought they have read about). In the end, all they do is react. Scholars spend all their energy saying yes or no, criticizing what other people have thought, – they do not think for themselves any more . . . Their instinct for self-defence has run out, otherwise they would be defending themselves from books. The scholar – a decadent. – I have seen it with my own eyes: natures that are gifted, rich, and disposed to be free, already ‘ruined by reading’ in their thirties, just matches that have to be struck to emit sparks – ‘thoughts’. Early in the morning, at the break of day, when everything is fresh, in the dawn of your strength, to read a book – that is what I call depraved!” – Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, trans. Judith Norman.


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